The Maff test – week 2

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So, this is my account of week two of Dr Phil Maffetone’s Two Week test. The purpose of the test, which I touched on briefly in part one of this blog, is to eliminate carbohydrates from my diet for two weeks and to exercise only within my maximum aerobic heart rate limit, a two-pronged attack to both remove the supply of fast-burning fuel from my body and the demand for using it, thereby re-training my body to use its natural fat stores. Why, exactly, am I going to all this trouble?

The Maffetone method – so called because it is a holistic lifestyle method and not just a diet and exercise plan – focuses on identifying the causes of and contributors to stress, promoting the body’s natural resources to defend itself. It has been used (and recommended) by many endurance athletes, including Ironman Mark Allen, as well as average Joes looking for a solution to perpetual fatigue – although less so by sprinters, rowers, athletes relying on short bursts of high intensity effort. According to the good doctor, a potential stressor on the human body is an undiagnosed but common occurrence of carbohydrate intolerance – to be clear, this isn’t a “all carbs = bad” blanket statement, it’s simply questions the ability to digest the quantity of carbohydrates found in a standard western diet. If you find it hard to believe that too much carbs could be a thing, think about how crazy you thought I was for taking this plan on in the first place, consider if the thought flashed through your mind “what the hell is she going to eat then?” If you did think that, try to imagine what your diet might look like if you avoided carbs for two weeks. In Britain especially we commonly eat bread or cereal for breakfast, sandwiches and crisps for lunch, rice, pasta or potatoes with dinner. It’s not much of a stretch to ask if we really need that much starch in our diet. It’s only a step further to ask if we can more efficiently burn our fat stores and forever avoid the dreaded bonk.

Hand in hand with this principle goes a re-education of exercise limits; understanding the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise, which the book summarises thus:

Aerobic: The ability to obtain more energy through increased fat burning

Anaerobic: The increased use of sugar for energy and decreased fat burning

If you’ve ever told yourself “no pain, no gain” during a workout, the chances are you’ve been working above your aerobic threshold – in other words, anaerobically – and are burning sugar for fuel. We can store a limited supply of this, as anyone who has hit the wall at mile 20 despite mainlining Lucozade can attest. By simply working within our aerobic capacity we are using aerobic muscle fibers – more resistant to injury than their anaerobic counterparts – and burning our fat stores, stores which are significantly more prevalent and provide far more energy pound for pound than sugar can do. But, and here’s another factor that flies in the face of common practice, it means doing a lot of slow running in order to get faster and build endurance. I mean, all my running is slow running so yet again it seemed like a much more intuitive plan for me than it might do for a lot of people. In fact I remember hearing about the Maffetone method for the first time not via Chris McDougall, but in a podcast interview with Larisa Dannis who described her workouts as being limited by her max heartrate, where the improvement comes from increasing speed against a fixed effort rather than increasing effort to improve overall speed. At the time I thought that it sounded like a much less painful and much more sustainable way to get results, and so far the practice seems to be bearing fruit. To know for certain though I will need to retake the MAF test (described in part 1) at monthly intervals and measure the improvements. Watch this space.

A lot of the measures he suggests do make sense when taken in isolation and within context, even though the programme as a whole can sound extreme at the outset. So I was careful not to lose sight of the reason I was attracted to it in the first place: namely that I am feeling as unwell as I’ve ever felt, due to a known combination of work and life stresses I can’t do much about, overtraining in my running (which I am tempering with a month and a half off from racing), and other stressors which I need to identify before I can resolve. With that in mind, anything seemed worth trying. The idea that excess carbohydrate could be a stressor seemed worth exploring, offering a seemingly win-win outcome. If reducing my carbohydrate intake relieves some of that pressure, yay. If it doesn’t and I can still eat cake sandwiches and pasta without fear that it’s poisoning me, yay.

Monday 24th July

Back to the working week. I felt a little sluggish after the weekend but part of that had to be attributed to the fact I was still recovering from a busy race schedule. And perhaps a whisper of a hangover. Breakfast was Brazil nuts, which turns out to be a great way to start the day if you’re not used to eating much early.

Andy has graciously allowed me to take control of lunches for the week and took a Tupperware full of Turkish salad, macaroni and tinned mackerel – and as far as I know, didn’t hate it. Had to be an improvement on Wetherspoons, anyway. I topped my own portion of salad with pepperoni (bending the processed meats rule) and huge chunks of halloumi. I can’t think of a single meal that halloumi doesn’t improve.

Dinner was the remainder of our curry. Andy bulked his up with rice, which can’t be the worst carbohydrate going, and I with roasted cauliflower. This turned out to be a delicious and surprisingly filling side, and went well with the curry (once I’d dumped a load of cumin and chilli on it). I tried to up my fat intake with some pork crackling snacks, after spending all last week thinking protein is the key. While the cauliflower roasted I took myself for a couple of miles around the local area, keeping as rigidly as possible within my maximum aerobic heart rate – 147. It’s probably a good measure of just how fatigued I am that some days I can barely move my legs fast enough to reach that maximum, as low as it is – I’m scratching around the mid thirties. I don’t think that’s a good sign.

Tuesday 25th July

I had a proper breakfast today – sausage, eggs and bacon in the work canteen. Who knew, it set me up well for the day and I didn’t need a single snack. In fact I barely drank any coffee. I can’t tell you how many years it’s been since I got to 4pm without six cups of coffee.

I did my run at lunchtime, taking the rare opportunity to leave the office for half an hour and came back feeling so much better for having the luxury to enjoy more than a hurried ten minutes around the block. When I got back I had a roast chicken salad waiting for me, which I have to admit I wasn’t really hungry enough for, but I knew dinner would be late as I promised to wait for Andy to get home from football. I won’t get this kind of structured day again for a while, and creature of habit that I am, I could easily make this a daily routine. Evening runs just aren’t doing anything for me at the moment; by the time I get home my muscles are worn to gummy threads like overstretched Blu-tac. The afternoon flies by.

Dinner is a huge mound of stir fried green veg with two fillets of sea bass pan-fried in butter. It. Is. Delicious. Even Andy agrees, although after a vigorous session of 5-a-side it’s not really enough for him and he has a chaser of chicken dippers. I realise I have had a glass of wine almost every day since starting this plan, which is probably not the point. I may have to examine just how much I’m drinking at the moment.

I had my little tub of almonds and Brazil nuts while waiting for Andy to get home, and the ubiquitous almond butter later in the evening while Big Little Bro and I chatted into the small hours about all the degrees we’re going to do when we’re rich. His plan is basically to stay in academia for as long as humanly possible. He makes a very compelling argument. I go to sleep dreaming of being a student again.

Wednesday 26th July

I overslept, unsurprisingly, so didn’t have time to make myself a lunchbox. Drat. At least I managed another cooked breakfast at work – which is amazing value and relatively clean eating. To be fair, I hadn’t felt the need for lunch or snack yesterday and I can always pick up a bag of almonds from the corner shop, so I wasn’t too worried.

It being a pretty active day at work I did have to stop for a proper lunch – the canteen had roast half chicken on which I supplemented with salad.  I did a lot of hurrying back and forth between another theatre down the road, not to mention a few miles on foot around the building, and for the first time since starting this test my endurance failed me.

We had planned to make stroganoff for dinner but I ended up staying so late with work to finish off there was not time to make it. I ran from work to the tube sation and from the tube station home, but it was a slow and painful run. Halloumi omelette gave me just enough energy to get to sleep.

Thursday 27th July

Broadcast day today again – which means another late finish, a lot of stress and another load of running around with irregular breaks. I managed a breakfast of carrot batons and peanut butter but that wasn’t until 12pm, swiftly followed by Nando’s chicken and peas for lunch.

Scrolling back through the macronutrients log on MyFitnessPal, I suddenly realised that sausages do of course have carbs in them (depending on what is mixed with the sausagemeat). Damn bugger balls. I mean I’m not exactly the most discliplined dieter but I thought I wasn’t doing too badly. A little research into the principles of the keto diet, which is a longer term and more sustainable but less flexible option for this principle of eating, shows that between 20 and 50 grams of carbs a day is the recommended maximum limit. Comparing my intake over the last two weeks with that at least I can see I’ve not been exceeding 25 grams a day, and most of those come from vegetables still on the yes list, so they must be OK. I am looking forward to bolstering some of those allowable grams with yoghurt and fruit though.

I get home at half 2 in the morning. Dinner was more nuts. As far as fuel goes it did just about get me through the day, but it is getting a bit miserable if I don’t plan my lunches ahead of time.

Friday 28th July

Ahhhh… day off. It’s our ninth anniversary today. We had plans to spend the day together doing middle aged things like shop for a new bathroom, but Andy had to go into work in the morning so I took the opportunity to sleep and continue Project Clearout. I treat myself to a breakfast of bacon, eggs and halloumi fried in butter which is THE BOMB. I didn’t need lunch as such but we had decided to go out to Boxpark for dinner anyway so I left good and early for dinner.

This is where things got messy. Boxpark had some amazing street food outlets to try – not many of them test-friendly though, so I started with a plate of grilled chorizo and a malbec. Thinking I wouldn’t find anything else to eat I have to confess to stealing a slice of Andy’s sourdough toast and hummus. It tasted good, but I immediately felt plate-pickers remorse.

And then we found Feed Me Primal, a paleo food stall. Holy crap why did we not find this first? An incredible plate of carb free noms, starting with a cauliflower rice base, topped with grilled veg, steak and chicken, then spinach and almond flatbread. I cannot even describe how good it was – even ANDY actively enjoyed it. As in, find this recipe and replicate it. No persuasion needed.

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From there however, it all went downhill (or uphill, depending on your perspective). I can’t pretend rum punches, increasingly bitter wine and eventually two shots of tequila feature on the Two-Week Test “yes” list, even if they don’t specifically appear on the “no” one. All I remember after that is screwing up Andy’s Uber rating by making the driver stop so I could throw up, and wailing “I’M GONNA DIE” into our mop bucket.

Saturday 29th July

Argh. Death.

Fry up at George’s Café. All I could manage to stay alive.

Missed parkrun. Missed day out with friends. Had to have two naps before going to sleep.

Lunch was half a jar of peanut butter and tears. Dinner was an entire pot of Onken yoghurt that I made my little brother go out for.

I cannot find the chapter in the book about how to survive a hangover.

Sunday 30th July

The final day of the no-carbs low-HR two-week test, if I can still call it that after the myriad infractions. It would be the biggest test of all, going for a social trail run with the Chasers combined with a bit of Prudential Ride 100 sightseeing. We had planned to start at Box Hill, run to the top to cheer on the cyclists there, then run back down and west along the North Downs to Guildford to round off the day. Nut butter for breakfast, and not a single hint of the hangries to start with.

Although we weren’t going at any kind of pace, starting off on a climb sent my heartrate through the roof straightaway, and probably knocked me out for the rest of the run. It was lovely to be out on the trails and enormous fun shouting at cyclists, but my leg muscles were threadbare before we even got to Denbies and by the top of that hill I was already shuffling. Counting back through the races and work projects I’ve done this year, it’s not surprise I can barely move my legs any more, but it’s still demoralising to realise I’m back to square one until I can recover.

I snaffled a Chia Charge bar and a nutty 9Bar, neither of which were totally carb-free but the closest thing I could find in the morning. I didn’t feel any sugar crash or energy slump symptoms – I just wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to stop moving, just for a day. Cat cajoled me through the last five miles, through me grumbling and whining and stopping for a stretch and looking for nearby train stations to bail out to. It was one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. I felt like a ball of negativity gathering volume and ferocity and I rolled down a hill of despair. I was not good company.

But finally, despite my best efforts, we made it to Guildford Station, stopped off at Marks for the biggest bag of nuts you’ve ever seen, and were homeward bound. I soaked myself in a hot bath as soon as I got home and lay flat on the sofa while Andy ordered curry for dinner. Half a roast chicken (good), a sneaky bit of tarka dhal (not good, but GOOD), Bombay peas (probably good). Bed: excellent.

Monday 31st July and beyond

So, what next? Well, the next step is to gradually reintroduce various different carbs to my diet – although never in two meals in a row – and evaluate which ones still affect me, while continuing to train within my maximum aeriobic heartrate of 147bpm. I might have been a bit lax on the final couple of days but to be fair I think I’d already found myself pretty certain that bread, pasta and potatoes have to be handled with caution, whereas pulses, vegetable and yoghurt are very manageable. The proof would of course be in the low-carb pudding – weighing and measuring myself to compare with the results before I started.

For two, frankly undisciplined and completely unscientific weeks’ worth of food experimentation, I was rewarded with three and half pounds in weight lost, and two centimetres lost from both my waist and hips. Some of this has to be attributed to water loss (despite my efforts to stay topped up), but I do at least feel slightly less wobbly around the edges. More importantly than that however is the fact that I’ve got through two broadcast weeks without feeling sluggish, bloated or dizzy, and without needing my reading glasses or near-lethal doses of caffeine. I can barely manage a day, usually. This, above all else, is a win for me.

With moderation, I’m not missing carbohydrates as much as I thought – in fact, it was the easiest thing in the world to decide to continue limiting my carb intake beyond the two weeks, and avoiding processed sugar indefinitely. Rice, beans, fruit and yoghurt are the first things back on the menu, provided I don’t go overboard, and the odd slice of bread won’t kill me – although that and beer are probably my biggest weaknesses. I’ve been gleefully embracing “fatty” foods, having learned what good fat tastes like, and chucking out anything bearing the legend low-fat, low-calorie or “light”. I am satisfied so much more than I used to be. I no longer need to snack, or suffer light-headedness and sugar crashes in the middle of the afternoon. I, a runner who could be sponsored by Haribo and Nutella, have honestly not craved a single bite of sugar.

But how valid, exactly, was the test? The occasional slip-ups aside – and I should clarify here that the book’s advice is to restart the test every time you do, which I obviously did not follow – it’s worth reviewing it in the context of its overall purpose, which wasn’t exclusively about weight loss for me. It was about a holistic lifestyle reboot, retraining my body to use its resources for fuel, for recovery and for reducing its susceptibility to stress. My lifestyle is stressful; either I change my lifestyle (not happening) or I change the way I handle it. The alternative would be to carry on freewheeling down this slope of negativity, taking everyone I love with me. It also held a mirror to a burgeoning problem which, if I’m honest, shocked me a little. I’ve tracked my food and drinks on MyFitnessPal every day for the last couple of years and obsessively reviewed every morsel and every calorie, but only in these last two weeks noticed just how heavy a drinker I’ve become. I’m not proud to admit that it took counting grams of carbohydrate to finally notice that I automatically reach for a beer or a wine at the end of every day, reasoning that it’ll help me sleep better or digest my food or just because I deserve it. Still, even if the test itself is bogus, at least I’m more conscious of what I’m putting in my body. Until football season starts, of course.

So, reducing one potential stressor – nutritional imbalance – has to help contribute to the whole, and I believe it has. Reducing another – the effects of overtraining, by running to effort and limiting anaerobic activity – was an easy win as well, especially for a midpacker endurance athlete. Eliminating the main stressor in my life – work – may not be an option until I win the lottery, but by managing the other stressors I am giving myself a bigger capacity to cope with it. There’s no silver bullet there; I won’t get over that particular hurdle without a protracted period of rest, and as it happens I do have a week off work coming up. In the interest of empiricism, I’m very tempted to try the test again after my break, to be sure of the validity of it. Then again, it’s already served a purpose of sorts, retraining my cravings and confirming some suspicions. There are not many things I can be 100% sure of, but if there’s one it’s that the occasional puppy-eyed stare at someone else’s buttered toast comes from missing the taste, the pleasure of the treat, not because my body is telling me I need it. Those stares are reserved for Meridian nut butters these days.

If this resonates with you in any way, the first thing I would say is do your research. What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. The nutritional aspect of the Maffetone Method may sound as if its not a million miles from the ketogenic diet, the paleo diet, Atkins, LCHF, all with slight variations on very similar principles; but unlike the diets listed it promotes flexibility and adaptation informaed by regular monitoring of results, rather than a rigid plan. As always, it’s worth learning about what the plan involves and even consulting a nutritionist before undertaking any significant lifestyle changes. Not a blog.

Here’s the disclaimer bit. To be clear, I’m not an expert; neither am I on commission nor holding shares in the book or in Meridian. I just wanted to share my average Joe experience in the hope that someone else asking themselves the same questions I did can perhaps find some answers of their own. If you only take one thing away from my post, take this: when you begin to feel like a passive force in your own life, when you feel that your training has hit a plateau or your nutrition needs a reboot, read. Learn. Observe, examine, analyse. The clues are all there, if you take the time to find them. Anyone can make a change: just make sure you’re making the right one for you.

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Hampshire Hoppit

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It’s taken almost two years but I’ve finally begun to admit to myself, I might be suffering from Exhaustion with a capital E. Not just I’m tired today, or I need a lie in. I am an onion peeling layers of fatigue, as each layer rots and turns black it falls off and reveals another layer of eye-watering, sour smelling, profound exhaustion. All the layers are nearly gone. Soon there won’t be anything left.

Common sense would suggest that the last thing I should be doing is another marathon, but the truth is that running is the only thing that keeps my mind from crumbling apart like wet cake. I have managed to maintain my mile a day streak throughout 2017 so far, and the promise of at least ten minutes a day to myself has mentally maintained me. A marathon is a bit different though, especially a trail marathon in thirty degrees of heat. And yet, I couldn’t wait to get going.

Running in the heat is something of a monkey on my back; two attempts at the North Downs in August have ended in failure, not to mention countless training runs cut short and a history of suffering heatstroke. So when I noticed the weather forecast in the days up to the race creeping ever closer to the thirties, I actually looked forward to an opportunity to finally shake that monkey. Every time I have found a weakness I’ve worked to turn it into a strength: first mud, then nerves, then hills. Nutrition and heat remain to be cracked. So, I thought, let’s get cracking.

Cat and I arrived at Kingsclere stables which served as the race HQ, and immediately set up camp in the shade of a car. Having Cat there made a huge difference for the run-up at least, although contrary to her very gracious “no really, I’ll be very slow” I knew we wouldn’t be running together. She eyed up a few regular friendly rivals, sought out the only source of water (both our bottles already dry) and settled in at the front of the field. I looked ahead to the huge hands and feet climb a mile in and decided I wasn’t sparing a bead of sweat before lunchtime.

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There were a few clues to how unprepared I was for the race, if I’m honest. The car park was around half a mile away from the race start, and I didn’t realise until we got to our patch in the shade that I’d left my peaked Buff in my car – no way I would get through today without it. The jog there and back to retrieve it would be a nice warmup, so off I trotted. Nope. My legs were two rumbling logs of nope. Heavy, rhythmless, slow, obviously nowhere near recovered from the North Downs 50. Today would be a challenge in management of reserves, in making the best of what I had available to me.

So once Cat tore off up the hill like a gazelle I settled in to a nice steady trudge. I had chosen to go with a small belt for nutrition and a handheld bottle for water so that I would remember to drink regularly. I’d nicked a last minute blob of sunscreen from Cat, whose packing skills are somewhat less minimalist than mine (read: prepared) and that and the trek to retrieve the peaked Buff both turned out to be good moves – even my Mediterranean skin wasn’t up to the hours of exposure in dry heat. There’s a saying I used to hear a lot in Cyprus: “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Add ultra runners to that and you’re grand.

That first hill was brutal, and it wiped me out for a good four or five miles despite limiting my effort levels, but it was at least useful in keeping the early pace down to something sensible. Having decided so early on that today was a survival race I didn’t even bother looking at my watch. I couldn’t remember where the aid stations were anyway, so there was no value in counting down miles until the next water refill. I’d just have to manage fluids as cleverly as possible and fill up at every opportunity. As it turned out, the official aid stations were bolstered by countless unofficial ones, as the good people of Hampshire turned up to various points along the course with car boots full of water, squash, fruit wedges and Haribo.

The marathon route took in a roughly square loop of the picturesque Hampshire countryside starting and ending in Kingsclere, dipping into the boundaries of Basingstoke, Overton, Whitchurch and Litchfield. Only a year old, the race is organised by Basingstoke and Mid Hants AC who are understandably proud of the area and seem to have gone to great lengths to show us the many trails and footpaths running through the countryside like veins. As such, I treated it more like a social hike than a race. I had had the race recommended to me by a few Chasers who had run the inaugural race last year, and raved about the relaxed and friendly organisation and the utterly not-relaxing elevation – catnip to someone like me. Even as I struggled to keep moving I had to agree – I wasn’t breaking any records but it was such a beautiful day there was no question of complaint.

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To my surprise, I reached the halfway point in less than two and a half hours. It was the first time I’d really looked at my watch, having assumed that I was going at a snail’s pace, and I had to tap it a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t going doolally. That hadn’t felt as bad as I expected – but had I overcooked it already? The blistering sun wasn’t showing any signs of letting up, and although I wasn’t suffering in the heat I already had dry skin and a face full of salt. I hadn’t been eating much at all, apart from salty Hula Hoops and gels, but oddly enough that wasn’t bothering me either. I decided it was one of those things you just have to bank and carry on. Since getting past the first big hill my legs had been killed, gone through rigor mortis and come out the other side a pair of zombies. At least they could move again. Time to make hay while the sun shines.

The local residents were absolute legends, I have to admit. As the race wore on the official looking water and food stations were becoming increasingly outnumbered by people dispensing water and Jucee squash from the back of SUVs, children sitting out the fronts of their houses with tubs of sweeties, mums offering plates of orange slices, and even one family who turned the hose on anyone who ventured near enough. They absolutely made that race, especially as every time I thought we were dipping back into the wilderness we found another little country cul-de-sac or cottage full of people eager to help us out. Credit goes to both to the natural hospitality of Hampshire, and I think to the club for cultivating such a good reputation in the local area.

After my optimism at the halfway point everything suddenly went downhill. Or, I should say, uphill – I don’t remember feeling this at the time, but looking back at my GPS data I notice that the elevation cruelly maintains a gradual downhill to the halfway point, then climbs consistently all the way to the end. All I remember is my legs feeling increasingly more tired, my shoulders slumping further forward, the nutrition belt rubbing against my lower back as my posture got worse. Hindsight being a wonderful thing, I now know why this was happening; at the time I took it as a further symptom of my chronic fatigue and decided that I absolutely, definitely needed a protracted period of rest. The trick of the elevation might have done me a favour, because without that perception I might have chugged on for months to come, in deep denial about my health and clinging to any fragment of an excuse for poor performances. As it was, the race gave me the biggest wake up call I’ve ever had.

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By the time I had six miles to go I was barely walking. Time was slipping through my hands and my pace was grinding almost to a halt. I knew that Cat would have long since finished and had to send a few emergency messages to her to let her know a) I was still alive and b) her lift home might be a long while coming yet. She sent back encouragements in caps lock, and an update on the race result – an incredible fourth lady finish and V40 trophy considering she wasn’t really racing it. That was enough to shake my legs out a bit – I still couldn’t move them very fast but there was not and had never been any question of stopping or quitting. It hardly seemed right to leave her waiting for long.

The volunteers at the last water station told me there was one more climb before a long downhill to the end, which was true, but also underplayed all the little bumps and divots in the ground that my legs didn’t even have the energy to lift themselves over. Finally though I turned into a wooded area and found something like an amusement park slide to take me back down the Kingsclere stables, the finish line visible in the distance. And for a brief moment, I got all excited like a five year old. Then I got a stitch.

That was the slowest, hobbliest downhill I think I’ve ever done, taking ginger little steps and tucking myself away every time someone came past at normal speed. I had been in good spirits for the rest of the race, but this really annoyed me – downhill mentalism is my thing and now I wasn’t allowed to enjoy it. I felt dehydration clobber me like a sack of bricks as well – I’d been sculling water at every opportunity but there was nothing left in the bottle at this stage. At the bottom of the hill was a flat stretch across the field to get back to the start/finish line, and I have to confess I walked most of it – I just couldn’t move any faster. Such a beautiful course, and here I was running the most anticlimactic race finish I think I’ve ever done.

My perseverance paid off though, and eventually the last couple of hundred metres came into view. Cat ran back to get me over the line, and I couldn’t resist having a go at a sprint finish – although given that she kept up with me in flipflops I can’t flatter myself that it was much of a sprint. But I made it – I leapt over the line, curled up on the floor, and laughed. Five hours and thirty eight minutes later, the legs that weren’t even strong enough to start still got me to the finish.

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Oddly enough, I wasn’t the least bit sore – presumably because I hadn’t been doing any strenuous work, just moving very slowly – so all I needed was my commemorative pint pot (filled twice over with fresh water) and a Cornetto to get me back on my feet and ready to drive home. As we stretched out on the grass briefly the sun was still beating down, even stronger than before, and if I hadn’t been covered in salt and bruises from my waist pack I could easily have fooled myself into believing I was on holiday. Far from being a challenge, I genuinely enjoyed running in the heat; although if I’d been trying for any kind of time it would have killed me. Still though, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to nab a better time (not to mention beast that downhill).

But not before a good long rest.

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The Maff Test – week 1

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So, I did that thing. I did the thing all struggling, plateau-bound mojo-less athletes do which is read a Christopher McDougall book and then go out and try to do the book. I once gave my mum Born To Run thinking she’d appreciate the story of cameraderie, the life-affirming joy of friendly competition and the history of the human form, and she immediately went out and bought Vibram FiveFingers.

He has an amazing way of writing one story from five different perspectives and allowing the reader to latch onto whichever one they best identify with, sometimes to the exclusion of all the others. This is why I came away from the book thinking it was all about the anthropology, and many others (Wendimum included) thought it was an advert for barefoot running. I was justifiably wary then of not bringing any bias to Natural Born Heroes, and the first time I read it I came away with so many parables to digest I lost track of all of them. So on the second reading I decided to take it completely at face value, and ended up taking away something buried within a couple of lines in one chapter on a tangential thread about halfway through. Something about a guy called Maffetone.

Some backstory – I have been, a regular readers will know and probably be sick of hearing by now, fatigued to the point of delirium. I read back some of my recent posts, along with my 2017 running diary so far, and I bored myself. Whinging about tiredness is OK to a point; that point was passed long ago. My lifestyle isn’t changing: I haven’t won the lottery, sold my bestseller or been picked up for sponsorship by Altra (although hope springs eternal). There’s really nothing to lose by trying a different way of managing what I have. I had tried a similar approach a few years ago, cutting out gluten to resolve a similar dip in energy and abdominal pains, and was surprised to find that it made an immediate, drastic and exclusively positive difference. Was it that simple? was I really just intolerant to all my favourite foods? At the time I gradually reintroduced bread, cake and pasta to my diet, not because of any special plan but because I reasoned that I’d rather be in pain occasionally than miserable always; besides, a little of what you fancy, etc. Now a few years on I found myself wondering if I had simply let the scales unbalance again.

After battling through the unnecessary Amazon packaging I opened my crisp copy of The Maffetone Method, devoured the Foreword, Preface AND Introduction, and got started on the questionnaire. It’s the usual format of questions, to which the more you answer yes the more likely you are to find the book’s advice applicable. Do you tire quickly, have you gained weight, do you get dizzy, do you have trouble sleeping, do you feel frequently thirsty? Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.


Naturally, the book offers a total lifestyle plan including advice on training, nutrition and conditioning; in fact its full title is “The Maffetone Method – The Holistic, Low-Stress, No-Pain Way To Exceptional Fitness”. Less naturally, Dr Phil Maffetone himself isn’t selling a branded protein bar or set of meals that are “all you’ll ever need”, or an off the shelf training plan to follow to the letter. Actually, there is literally nothing convenient or fomulaic about this book. Which I sort of like.

One thing it does suggest however – and I really must stress that a) this isn’t the primary lesson and b) it goes hand in hand with heart-rate training, a plan for rest and a number of other lifestyle factors to reduce stress and promote using fat stores over sugar – is to follow a two week plan eliminating carbohydrates, then reintroducing them gradually and one at a time, to identify which if any you are intolerant to. This sounded familiar, so I figured it had to be worth a try. Literally anything that will help me feel more alive than your average zombie had to be worth a try.

So, this post will cover the first week of the test. Next week I’ll explain a little more of the principles that go hand in hand with it and almost none of the science – if you’re curious, go and do your own damn research – and together we can find out if I learned anything useful or if I’ll just end up swimming in a bath full of Nutella toast and tears.

Monday 17th July:

Did MAF test – maximum aerobic function – to measure base levels of fitness. This involves running for a set distance over a set course (I chose my usual 3.5 mile loop around my house starting and finishing on an uphill, but the book recommends 5 miles with as little obstruction as possible) at a set heart rate, and measuring the time it takes to complete. My maximum aerobic heartrate – the max HR before I start depleting my sugar stores instead of using fat – is 180 minus my age, so 147. Average pace ended up at 9:10 minutes per mile. We’ll see how this changes over the next couple of weeks.

Weight: 139.8 lbs
Waist 70 cm
Hips 92 cm

Food: Raw nuts for breakfast, black coffee throughout the day (I pepped up boring instant with a dash of ground ginger – surprisingly good, like eating ginger nuts with your brew!)

Roast turkey, feta cheese and salad for lunch.

Stir fry beef with Chinese five spice and chilli, green veg and eggs for dinner, including a miso soup starter and a glass of Malbec.

Not once did I feel peckish. Not once did I feel the need to snack. Ended up well within my calorie count, which I never manage to do. Didn’t even feel the post work dip which often means me needing a snack for the tube journey home. This is ridiculous.  Is it really that easy?

Tuesday 18th July

Today I purposely had an easier running day – gentle couple of miles run to the tube, which doubles up as the cheapest and quickest way to get there.

Breakfast and lunch same as the day before – working through the batch of food prepared at the weekend. I don’t like eating the same thing twice in a day but I have no problems with the same meal two or three days running. Faddy eater, creature of habit, if it works it works!

Dinner was a particularly pleasing and simple creation I stumbled upon last week (I had started to limit the carbs I was eating but didn’t want to start the test proper until after the Chilterns 50k) combining two of my favourite foods, eggs and halloumi cheese. Wanna hear the recipe? Get your notepad:

Whisk 4 eggs and heat olive oil in 20cm frying pan
Start making omelette
Throw in a huge handful of grated halloumi (and if you’re feeling adventurous, some fresh mint) and fold over
Cook low and slow until the cheese melts
Dump a load of salad on top

STAND ASIDE NIGELLA, I’LL MAKE MILLIONS

Of course, I didn’t manage to avoid the commuter hour energy crash this time, so had to pick up something snacky and proteiny on the way home, and in my addled state of mind picked up… two hard boiled eggs. Bit of egg overload, if I’m brutally honest. Rest of day’s snacks consisted of half a jar of Meridian cashew nut butter, for balance.

Meanwhile, at bedtime, my muscles ached so badly I could barely relax enough for sleep. I’m not sure if this is connected with the test – previous users have noted that headaches are common while your body switches from carbs to fat fuelling – or if it’s just because I still haven’t foam rolled after last Saturday’s race.

Wednesday 19th July

Early start for work – I mean, the alarm clock had a 4 in it early. My stomach wasn’t happy with the early wake up so I couldn’t manage breakfast in the recommended timeframe of within an hour of waking. Once the first batch of work was out of the way (around 9am) I tucked into carrot sticks and half a jar of Meridian peanut butter (for variety) and immediately stopped attacking people.

Still using up the turkey for lunch, adding a bit of halloumi this time instead of feta. I really should vary what I’m eating a little more, despite the limitations – tomorrow probably won’t be a turkey day. Dinner today, however, will be. We found some surprisingly cheap, lean turkey mince to make meatballs and courgetti with for dinner. Andy has been a bit of a trooper, happily going along with the test-friendly recipes and not complaining about the lack of starch. Let’s see how that goes after a week in. The addition of a glass of red helps.

My leg muscles are still very grumbly – leaden and stiff rather than painful. I really need a proper sports massage but unlikely to get a chance for a couple of weeks. Am seriously considering taking a rolling pin to them.

Thursday 20th July

Late finish for work today, so I had to pack breakfast and dinner and make sure I got a decent lunch. Breakfast would be half a pot of coconut and almond butter with carrot sticks (snack was the other half of the pot). Dinner was meant to be roast chicken breast on top of cauliflower couscous stir fried with green vegetables – as it turned out I didn’t get dinner, just picked at the chicken on top during the show and a handful of Brazil nuts. But I got a good hearty lunch of Nando’s extra hot chicken and macho peas, so didn’t really need it. And no, there’s no such thing as too much chicken.

Work went smoothly – surprisingly smoothly – but it’s still a highly pressured fifteen hour day with not a lot of down time. The early morning run (still an easy mile as it’s technically a non-running week while I recover as best I can) set me up for the day, but I really really miss rambling, long slow treks, just me and some podcasts and a handheld full of squash. Patience will be the key I think.

Friday 21st July

Didn’t get to bed until half past one and my sleep was fitful at best, so wasn’t really in the right frame of mind for a site visit with work the following morning. For the first time I woke up craving something sweet for breakfast. Not necessarily cereal or toast or anything like that; actually the thing I’ve missed most is fruit and yoghurt. I could have murdered a huge pile of strawberries, cherries and blueberries on top of one of those Muller whipped yoghurt things. OK, leave me be for a bit. I need a moment.

When I came back to earth I made do with Meridian peanut butter and carrot sticks (the sweetest thing on the Maffetone friendly foods list). The site visit went on longer than expected so I didn’t get a chance for lunch – once again the other half of the jar of peanut butter had to do. I can’t spend the next two weeks living on nut butters though.

Dinner was a takeaway Chinese at a friend’s house while we stayed with Andy’s mum in Basingstoke. My first takeaway Maffetone challenge. I didn’t want to risk vegetables as they’d be smothered in sugary sauce, so I went for a good old fashioned omelette and picked at some roast pork. A pot of olives and feta and some lunchbox sticks of cheddar tided me over for the drive to Basey.


Saturday 22nd July

OK, real test today. Firstly, I had agreed long ago to a parkrun challenge with Barrie from Basingstoke, and having beaten him twice on London turf I desperately wanted not to lose the away fixture. The whole point of the Maffetone system is removing both the supply of fast burning fuel and the demand for it, which is why you never exceed your maximum aerobic heartrate; this I obviously did, for 24 agonising minutes. Luckily I had a handsome man on hand to make me bacon and eggs for breakfast afterward.

Next item on the agenda that day would be a wedding in Winchester, and like most weddings it involved waiting a long time to eat. Usually I’m a prowling twitchy mess by the time the rings are on so I packed myself a little bag of nuts to keep me going, but I found that I didn’t need them – just as I started to feel hungry again (around 5pm) is when dinner was served anyway. It was an incredible vegetarian Mediterranean buffet spread, easily some of the most amazing food I’ve eaten in a while… but it was, of course, carb city. I just couldn’t avoid carbs altogether otherwise my dinner would have consisted of broccoli and salad leaves. Upsetting as it was to do so I passed on the spanakopita and stuck to dolma (vine leaves stuffed with rice) and a small piece of macaroni cheese, and something that I think was nut roast. Spent the rest of the evening staring at the slices of frosting covered red velvet cake and drooling.

As soon as the cool people started dancing I drove back to Basingstoke to pick up Andy from a poker game that was supposed to be done by 10pm, and wagons home. An hour passed, then two, then three. Around midnight I had to snaffle some Dominos chicken strips (not carb free either) to keep going, and eventually Andy had to go all in with something like a two and Mrs Bun the Baker’s Wife just so he could bust out. By half past 2 we were finally home.

Sunday 23rd July

Tired didn’t describe me the following morning. Paralysed. Cajoled out of bed by the promise of a greasy fry up at the Chelsea cafe round the corner. Bacon, sausage, eggs, grilled tomatoes. Screwed up the test again by giving in to half a slice of buttered toast.

Now, it’s hard to tell if the two mouthfuls of rice and the half a slice of toast really contributed to how crap I felt, especially when two five hour sleeps, a hard-fought 5k and a gutful of adrenalin are in the equation, but I certainly felt them in my stomach. This week has been the first in a while that I’ve neither gone to bed feeling sick nor woken feeling bloated, but Sunday morning kicked me in the arse.

I eventually felt human enough to clean the house and that in itself made me feel a bit more like a human. Lunch was half a pot of almond butter and carrot sticks – I don’t know if I can live on this forever but it works for now – and dinner was a slow cooked curried lamb leg with my custom garam masala (no rice). I took myself off for a nice disciplined low heart-rate trot to loosen up and recover slightly, and once again felt so satiated that I ended up well within my calories again (not for want of trying) without once feeling hunger pangs. Back on track, even if Phil himself would probably call my test null and void.

So that’s week one of the test over – only one more week of people asking me how on earth I’m coping and marvelling at the quantity of food I can inhale. I’m already so surprised at how quickly my blood sugar dips have disappeared, and how easy it has been to keep up as long as I’m in control of finding my food. I’m really, honestly, not craving snacks. I’m not hungry in the middle of the night. I’ve barely worn my glasses all week – I can actually read the computer screen.

But I might take it easy on the nut butters from now on.

 

 

North Downs Way 50 – Centurion Grand Slam part 2

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For someone who values the sociable nature of ultrarunning and never fails to make friends on the trails, there’s something very appealing about staying on my own the night before a race. I often stay in a random little pub or B&B if I can, find the nearest Italian restaurant/supplier of obscene quantities of carbs and red wine, tuck myself away in a corner with a book and just be. I love it. It’s worth being apart from my fish and my budgies and my Andy and our castle, much as I hate to leave them, for the meditative solitude of the pointless traveller. Bonus points if there’s no signal or wi-fi.

Having started three ultras from beautiful Farnham I’m well-acquainted with its charms, and so apparently were many of the other North Downs Way 50 competitors. So when I finally got my arse into gear to book my pre-race accommodation, obviously all the nearby hotels were full or obscenely expensive. Fair enough. Good opportunity to get even further away for some peace and quiet and grumpy time, where the options were plentiful and much cheaper, even including the cab to Farnham. I ended up with a B&B in nearby Ash, The Lion Brewery, which turned out to be a pub and music venue as well, and almost literally the only thing in Ash Parish apart from cottages. Doom Bar on tap, copper pans on the walls, fried egg sandwich waiting for me at 6:15 the next morning. Yep, this’ll do.

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The route for the Centurion North Downs 50 is the first half of the 100 mile version, starting at the head of the trail in Farnham and following it as far as Knockholt; having attempted that twice before I was pretty confident about my knowledge of the route. Probably a little too confident – let’s be honest, any amount of confidence before an ultra is too much confidence. As with the 100, we started at St Polycarps School for the race briefing and registration, in a hall that smelled of floor varnish and sugar paper; I felt like I was nine years old again. Just like nine year olds we walked in a crocodile formation down to the start, comparing packed lunches and buzzing with excitement.

As usual, I had pretty good company for the run. A lot of familiar faces from previous Centurion races, almost half the field prospective grand slammers. And a little bit of glamour thrown in – the perennially sunny Susie Chan was running with broadcaster and keen long distance runner Sophie Raworth, taking on the distance for the first time. Sydnee Watlow (half Chaser and half Fulham Runner) and her clubmate Henri were also running in what would be their first 50 mile race, as well as Lovely Sam (stalwart of XNRG races) aiming for an improvement on last year’s eight and a half hours. Sam started at the business end of the pack, obviously, but I ran with Sydnee and Henri at a steady ten minute mile pace for as long as I could hang on – at least while we had the runnable and friendly North West Surrey terrain.

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I hadn’t seen much of Sydnee since last August when she volunteered to pace me in the later stages of the 100, but since I quit at mile 66 we never got the chance for a good old gossip. We more than made up for it over the first three hours, enjoying a sociable pace and the perfect running conditions: dry but not hot, overcast but not muggy, bright but not blistering. Henri stayed just a few paces ahead of us all the way like a bodyguard. The first checkpoint at Puttenham around mile 7 passed in the blink of an eye, and shortly afterwards Sydnee’s dad popped up at the bottom of St Martha’s for a check in and a bit of gratuitous photo taking. What else are parents for, eh?

Before long we reached the River Wye at Guildford and the legendary bacon butty barge, manned (obviously) by two chaps in inflatable sumo suits. Never mind not being able to eat on the run – these cold bacon butties saved my life last August and there was no way we could pass without grabbing some, even if it meant walking briefly while we digested them. Sydnee even suggested that we take photos of ourselves with the butties… just as I was retrieving the plastic wrap from halfway down my throat, having inhaled mine. Ahem. I mean as food tourism opportunities go this is up there with wagyu beef and caviar, but I’ve either got time to eat or Instagram, not both. I did manage to get a snap of the barge as we marched away with our swag though. Maybe I could just go back for one more…

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Newlands Corner was the next station; by this point Sydnee had had a couple of impromptu comfort breaks where I’d preferred to hold off for the relative luxury of the café facilities so I took a few minutes to refresh before taking off again. It turned out there was another Chaser, Alice, who was also tackling her first 50 miler that day and we bumped into each other (almost literally) in the ladies, happy to see even more friendly faces. Perhaps it was to do with the fact that I was running with three people new to the distance but there was an air of caution, or perhaps patience, and so instead of my usual MO of smash and grab I took my time filling up water bottles, getting fruit and cookies (now I know that’s the only thing I can keep down during a race). Actually I might have been dawdling a little too much; when I was done Sydnee and Henri were raring to go to avoid seizing up so off we took.

Almost immediately, a leaden feeling settled into my legs. It didn’t feel like cramp or muscles getting cold – this was a very definite “are we done yet” feeling. Ah. I mean, I wasn’t expecting to break any records since once again (load up the broken record) I was in between two insanely busy periods of work and running on fumes to begin with, but 16 miles isn’t quite where I’d expected to flag. Alice had stayed back at the aid station for a few moments and Sydnee and Henri were on a roll so I let them go and trotted on for a bit on my own; a blessing in disguise as it also gave my stomach time to settle. The pointless traveller was on another pilgrimage to nowhere.

I was being super conscious of salts and hydration after the fiasco that was the South Downs 50 five weeks before – not that I needed to be so vigilant since it wasn’t anywhere near as hot or exposed, but it paid off. Besides the bacon butty I’d also crammed the Lion Brewery’s fried egg sandwich down about half an hour before the race start which in turn was chasing half a packet of peanut cookies, so I was slightly uncomfortable but in no immediate danger of bonking. Look at that, a lesson learned. It also meant that I could more confidently rely on the aid station food and carry as little as possible, another huge improvement on the last two attempts at this course when every extra gram seems to have double gravity on the hill climbs.

Alice caught up with me somewhere around Ranmore Common and we ran together for a little while – perfect timing really, I was starting to feel sociable again and missed the company that had made those first few miles fly. She was a fascinating person to talk to and not as new to the club as I had originally assumed, just to trail running; I was reminded of just how many Chasers there are marauding around the south west of London that I haven’t got to know yet. A couple of years ago we had a solid little group of social trail runners but that generation – myself very much included – either seemed to have moved away or moved on. I can’t tell you how important those people were in shaping my athletic career, such as it is, but more crucially in helping me build my confidence. These last few months I’d cut myself off from the club, pleading a busy work schedule for not being at training but also avoiding contact on Facebook because I felt like I just couldn’t keep up; the idea of logging in just to see how much fun everyone was having depressed me, and knowing what a shitty attitude that was made me feel even worse. I love sharing my friends’ achievements; it’s not competition that made me feel inadequate, more my lack of involvement. Enough selfish moping; it was time for me to pay it forward and start being more involved in the club again. The more that newcomers like Alice are given the support to take on a challenge of this magnitude with such grace as she did, the stronger our sport becomes and the further away those unbreakable boundaries are pushed. Before long she was also too fast for my lumpy legs and took off into the distance, on the way to smashing her first 50 miler with a sub-11 hour finish.

Everyone tackling the North Downs for the first time speaks of Box Hill with fear; I had actually been looking forward to it all day. Familiarity helps, knowing that once you’ve got past it there aren’t all that many lungbusters to go helps, warming up to it by freewheeling down past the Denbies vineyards definitely helps, and the hug from Lorraine – into whom I nearly crashed at the bottom of the Denbies estate, as I launched myself into her arms with a war cry – was like having rockets strapped to my arse. The Stepping Stones aid station is positioned at the foot of Box Hill so that runners can grab a boost of energy before the climb; it’s also a good opportunity to use a new set of muscles and refresh the calves and ankles that have been taking a pounding on the road leading downhill from the vineyard. My stomach was surprisingly fine, I’d been getting through a good amount of water and a sip or two of Tailwind, and I was letting my mind wander free as I ran alone, giving the grey matter a bit of exercise too. But my legs were far from happy. They weren’t particularly stiff, nor in pain apart from a slight niggle in my right IT band exacerbated by the relentless camber. They were just dog tired. I wasn’t worried about the hill since all I had to do was grind it out, but I was worried about what would come after it. Namely, another marathon over undulating terrain with little opportunity to get into a rhythm. This was going to be a slog.

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A couple of young families out for a hike – by which I mean two three-year-olds and a granddad with a babe in arms – overtook me on the climb up the Box Hill steps, but even if I’d had the motivation to speed up there was nothing in the tank. I took my time and enjoyed the perfect weather conditions – by now there was gorgeous late spring sunshine making the leaves above us glow. At the second incline after the peak I realised I would need some help, especially with Reigate Hill on the way as well, and kept an eye out for a good sturdy stick. There were lots of fallen trees and hundreds of willowy switches or stumpy branches, but nothing that would quite do the job. It would need to be long enough to be able to lean on, strong enough to take my weight and light enough not to be a burden. As I scanned the side of the track looking for this perfect stick two runners passed me wielding proper collapsible walking poles, as if to taunt me. I’ve resisted trying walking poles partly because simplicity is important to me when I’m running – after all, I like this sport specifically because it needs minimal kit – and partly because I’ve nearly lost an eye to them before, and I don’t want to cause a nuisance. But the more I run, or rather the older I get, the more I see the advantages to using them. I watched the two runners pass me with ease, advancing up the hill as if it had an escalator.

Just as I dropped my gaze back to the floor in despair I spotted something that looked like it might be perfect, if only it wasn’t part of a tree. I nudged it with my foot, then began to unearth it. My perfect stick was stuck in a bit of mulch but otherwise totally loose, and exactly what I was looking for. It even had a little notch from an old branch at exactly the right height for holding it, as if designed to take the crook of my thumb. If I’d hand carved the thing I could hardly have improved it. Stick in my right hand, I dug into the ground on every fourth step and immediately felt the benefit in my quads. This was much easier. By the time I was at the top my stick had my eternal gratitude and a name. Meet Woody.

As I always do, I reached the top of the incline bracing myself for Bastard Reigate Hill directly afterwards, and finding more single track winding for miles through the glade. I don’t know why but every time I somehow forget that there’s a three mile stretch between Box and Reigate and so what is meant to be a lovely runnable little section is spent worrying about the hands and knees crawl coming up, conserving energy for it instead of making up time. When we’re out on a social run or training it’s one of my favourite bits. When I’m racing through it – this would be the fifth time I’d covered it in a race – it is my Achilles heel. The irony is that bracing yourself for three miles is slightly more exhausting than just running. As I grumbled my way through the wood a couple of ladies drew level with me, admired Woody, my white sleeves and my wild hair, and told me I looked like Gandalf. In retrospect I missed a damn good opportunity to shout YOU SHALL NOT PASS but that might have been taking it a bit too far.

Part of my obsession with Bastard Reigate Hill is that no-one ever talks about it but is a proper bona fide bastard of a hill. I mean, it’s cruel and relentless and twisty and really fucking steep, and it has a convex profile so you can’t see the top until you’re actually on it. I’m not exaggerating here. As soon as we started the race I just wanted that bit to be over and done with, so naturally, it took a lifetime and a half to get there. But once we were there, the climb itself seemed to pass in only a minute or two. Was this what I’d been bitching about for miles? Either my memory was trolling me again or Woody was making a massive difference – Jesus, I really need to give walking poles more of a chance. I even had time and energy to appreciate the carpet of bluebells that seemed to personify the North Downs in spring. Once at the top it’s a short trot to the next aid station, and I knew this one would offer another toilet stop and a cracking view as well as the usual treats. Just like that, my legs started to come back to me.

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Meanwhile though my watch was having another tantrum – usually so reliable, for some reason the signal between Denbies and Merstham seems to be just a bit too sketchy to sustain accurate measurement and it read at least a mile and a half behind where I knew we were. Oh well, back to the good old fashioned mental arithmetic method. After making sure my number had been registered at the checkpoint I took my time to have a good old stretch and cool down on the grass, as well as stock up on watermelon and cookies and go to the loo; needing the loo twice in one race is definitely unprecedented for me, so despite my lethargy my hydration was obviously still on track. When I finally got going though I knew that there wasn’t anything left in the tank and consigned myself to a nineteen mile death march to the finish. My crap maths told me that even a walking pace would get me to the finish within the cutoffs as long as I didn’t dawdle and the occasional trot would afford the me luxury of pausing at checkpoints, so that would be my tactic from now on. Andy got his usual whinging phonecall while I hobbled off down the track and I gritted my teeth for the finish.

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We weren’t finished yet though, not by a long way. The familiar scoreboard of the Merstham Cricket Club popped up shortly afterwards to mark 33 miles in followed by a beautiful little church and a good mile of flat runnable tarmac on the way. Not for me though – every few paces I tried to run became agonising shuffles that eventually devolved to a walk again. I couldn’t run up hills, I couldn’t run on the flat, I couldn’t go fast downhill because my thighs were shredded. I just had to accept the suffering and trust the maths, and hope to quell the panic that was rising. The Caterham aid station at mile 38 (or mile 36 according to my Suunto) was a welcome opportunity to sit and stretch again, admiring yet more stunning views over the valley and get my nerves under control. The next stop would be mile 43, the other side of a long exposed stretch across Oxted Downs and a bitch of a climb up Botley Hill both of which have knocked me for six in the past. I was struggling just to keep moving forward by this point – if I could only get past the aid station the only cutoff I’d be chasing would be the finish time and I could pretty much hike the rest after then.

If I’ve learned anything running ultras it’s that suffering is temporary but failure is permanent. And this had become a suffer-fest like I’ve never experienced. Woody and I had gritted our teeth through the last agonisingly slow five miles, and finding a smiley face at the top of Botley Hill tipped me over the edge – for the first time in a long time I burst into tears. The lovely volunteer who was registering runners’ numbers was kind enough to ask me if I needed sympathy or just a minute to get over it, and even this little gesture, the last opportunity for me to regain my dignity, sent me into floods of tears again. I looked back down the hill I’d just climbed, to remind myself that I’d done it now – another milestone passed. The amazing food offerings – including homemade rocky road – tantalised my mind but turned my stomach. There wouldn’t be enough in the tank for me to run the last 7 miles but I could walk it in two hours and be within the cutoffs, and the calories I had on board would just about last that far. All I had to do was keep moving.

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Once we passed across the border from Surrey to Kent the landscape changed from woodland to jungle, and the terrain from hills to ruts and vicious cambers. The well tilled farmland creates ankle threatening channels wide enough for half a foot, like running through a half pipe, and the other foot is forced to land on the raised ground beside it. I persisted with a lopsided little hobble as long as I could but my left hip started to scream and I was forced back to a hike. This meant the farmlands seemed to go on forever – even more foreverer than they do when I run them. The race had become an exercise in extreme patience. I would get to the end in time now even if I crawled, but the key would be continuing to move – any amount of moving would be faster than stopping. Every now and again I forgot that I wasn’t aiming for 11 hours any more, did my mental calculations, had a bit of a panic, then remembered I was aiming for 13 now. Oddly enough the same thing happened to me at the South Downs Way 50, except then I had the excuse of a bonk. Now I was just knucking fackered.

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Another lady caught up with me as I trudged through the first of many cowfields; she didn’t have a GPS watch, just a normal timepiece, and asked how much further  I thought we had to go. I gave up following the mileage on my watch but was pretty sure that we’d only have three or four farms to get through and then we’d be done. She kept me company for those three or four farms, but when we got to the end of the fourth one and saw only miles and miles of farmland in front of us she realised I was not a reliable source of course information and ran on ahead. The next couple of miles, and that’s all it could have been, felt like Groundhog Day. The fields just kept coming. Did I misremember? I’m sure the last time I ran this the turnoff for Knockholt was after this gate. Problem was, they all looked the fucking same. Every new field inspired a new stream of expletives and a fresh temper tantrum, another feeble attempt to trot and another defeat.

Woody really came into his own here. He turned out to be the perfect weight for carrying while I ran as well as the perfect support pole for my death march. I started to worry about what would happen to him at the end – I would HAVE to take him home, I’d get him onto the train somehow and walk from the station instead of getting a lift in the car. He was too important to leave behind, more important than a comfortable journey home. I know it sounds silly to become attached to a bit of stick, but he’d stuck with me through more of the race than anyone else. As I worked feverishly through the logistics of getting my stick home, I realised that I had finally found the last gate out of the last field and directions to the finish line. Woody, you bloody genius.

Gripping him in my right hand I freewheeled down the road which would eventually double back to the village hall – only then did I realise the reason the last couple of miles seemed so unfamiliar is because they were. In the 100 you turn off the NDW about a mile and a half from Knockholt Pound and divert through a number of roads to enter from the west, and leave the aid station moving in the same direction. We had continued to run along the trail north of the road and gone past it before turning off to reach the finish, which presumably accounts for the extra mileage needed to make it a proper 50. It also means, however, that having run DOWNHILL to the road you then have to run back up again to get to the arch in the land behind the hall – probably a few feet of uphill, but a cruel final twist in a slog of a race. As I turned onto the road I saw Sydnee, who despite having finished over an hour earlier had waited for me to show me the way to the finish. The very last drop of effort in me spent climbing the hill to the finish arch, I managed as much of a leap over the finish line as my leaden legs would manage and fell to the floor, cuddling Woody and sobbing.

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I’d spent almost an hour planning my logistics so as to make sure Woody would come home with me; then, when Sydnee and her dad offered me a lift almost all the way I realised it would be both rude and unspeakably stupid to refuse just so I could keep my stick. I did spend a long time thinking it over though – Knockholt station is just over a mile away to walk, three trains to get me home then another mile from Mitcham, not impossible… Eventually though I had to concede that Woody was not coming home with me so I gave him a kiss and left him by the side of the finish area, hoping that he would be able to help another runner one day. Of all the emotional struggled I went through that day, parting with Woody was absolutely the worst. But, I thought on the drive home, I had a real live human being who had put her own comfort and recovery in jeopardy (again) to see me home safe. Once more Sydnee had come to my rescue, thinking nothing of it after smashing her first ever 50 miler in under 11 hours, and I couldn’t even think of the words to tell her how grateful I was. This is the spirit of trail runners and this is the thing I miss most of all when I can’t run.

It’s taken a while to recover from this race, in comparison with the South Downs – nearly a month on I still have a niggle in my right leg that probably needs medical attention, and a constant need for sleep. I’ll take that though, trade in a niggle free life just to get to the end. I still think of that day – mostly lonely, painful, and frustrating – with fondness because I finished it; if anything it means more to have gone through hell to get to the end than it would have if I’d had a textbook race and come out clean as a whistle. I’ve found a new depth that I can go to and still come back from. What a dangerous thing to know.

On reflection, and after browsing the comments on the Centurion Facebook page, I realise that I massively underestimated the race. Being familiar with it gave me confidence, but I neglected to confront just how tough a course it is; whichever way you look at it, it chewed me up and spit me out. Once again I have to admit I wasn’t fit enough for it, nor rested enough, and that’s something that needs to change before the next two in autumn. I know now what the consequences of ill preparation feel like, and that simply trading in preparation for lower expectations is not a long term strategy. I think I’d quite like to get a bit better at this running lark and not just scramble to the finish every time.

Baby steps.

Cover photo (C) Dan Milton – thank you for allowing me to use it and for not making me look like a mess…

South Downs Way 50

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I’ve tried twice before to complete one of James Elson’s races and both finished with a colossal bonk two thirds of the way in and a DNF. Granted, both attempts were for the North Downs Way 100, where in 2015 I attempted the distance only three weeks after my qualifying 50 mile race – not a recommended time frame for doubling distance – and in 2016 where I didn’t even commit to doing it until the week before, let alone train. Ahem. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate my approach.

So my challenge for 2017 is to take a step back and focus on a more manageable task, relatively speaking. Not to underplay the difficulty of the Centurion races, but as soon as I got home from deepest darkest Kent for the second time and dumped all the uneaten food out of my race vest I decided to sign up for the 50 Mile Grand Slam in 2017: four races across the year along the South Downs, North Downs, Chilterns and Wendover Woods with the promise of an extra bit of bling for finishing all four. If I can train for and normalise a 50 mile race, I might have half a chance of getting past Holly Hill.

Getting as far as the finish of the first race would however take a dramatic change in circumstances. My running routine had ground almost to a halt in 2016, and my work schedule had gone from crazy to totally insane. You can’t train for a 50 mile race by getting your knickers in a twist every time you miss a run, especially when you miss more runs than you make. So, for physical and mental reasons, I decided to restart my daily mile run streak. If I wasn’t going to get the volume of training required to finish the races I at least wanted consistency, and a change in priorities.

So, what could I do to prepare if I couldn’t do the mileage? A busy bit of scheduling at the beginning of the year meant that I was working every other weekend, not to mention many early mornings and evenings, so unfortunately social runs with the Chasers would be out. Loops around the common would have to be enough practice of off-road running, and occasionally doing flat out mile loops around home would take the place of speedwork. Other than that I slotted runs in wherever they fitted with the day’s work – running to and from the tube station usually. It’s only a couple of miles but when it has to be done with a heavy backpack – work clothes and shoes, laptop, lunch, stuff I forgot to take out – it makes for good strength training. And it’s more reliable than the bus.

I also restarted my running diary, which made a lot more sense when there was something to write in it every day, to track my progress on both fronts and keep a count of my weekly mileage. Lining up a few marathons to get back into the rhythm of racing really helped give me something to look forward too as well, not to mention the fact that bought and paid for races were harder to justify missing when weekend work popped up. My fourth attempt at the Moonlight Challenge finally saw me finishing the fifth lap, and the confidence boost that gave me became a massive turning point in my training. If I can get that far I can hike the rest.

Two things drove me to the end of the race. One was the experience of finishing the distance – although that’s a double edged sword, because it brings a calculable standard and the temptation to beat it – and the other was my overall goal to finish the grand slam. When running one race the definition of failure is quitting one race; when running a series the definition of failure in any one is failure of all of them. From one perspective that’s added pressure, but from another it’s the removal of the possibility of voluntary DNF. That’s the mindset I took with me to the start line at Worthing, anyway.

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The weather forecast was good. Let me rephrase: the weather forecast was good for sun worshippers, less so for ultra runners and ducks. Not for the first time I let my Mediterranean bombast get the better of me and refused the many offers of sun cream; I would pay for that decision later with peeling earlobes and sore shoulders. It was a comforting, homely warmth when we set off at nine in the morning; it was dehydration so bad my palms had stopped sweating by the time I even reached mile 15. Everything stopped sweating. But at the start of the race there was only hope, and the liberating feeling of carrying the barest minimum of items that will keep you alive for the next 50 miles. You know, like melty Snickers bars and a map I won’t use and two head torches on the sunniest day of the year and a lucky (HA HA) QPR cap.

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The first aid station is just over 11 miles in, which should feel like a long old way to go without support but really doesn’t. I mean, you can spend a lot of time on the South Downs before getting tired of the scenery, and it helped that I was joined by good company too; in particular two runners from local clubs who knew the terrain and the area well, and spoke of it like someone in love. Perhaps the company was slightly too good; in all my chatting I hadn’t noticed how little I’d drunk of my litre of water, and quite contrary to my plans hadn’t emptied my bottles by the time we reached Botolphs. I had to scull them dry as we reached the aid station to justify refilling them. The sky was clear and cloudless, the air unmoving. The South Downs is, unlike the North Downs I’d spent so much time on, incredibly exposed. There is no tree cover to shield you from rain or rays. You take the rough with the smooth.

Shortly after the first aid station I fell in step with a wine master who had trained nearby and we spent a lot of time looking out for his college on the way to Saddlescombe. He reminded me of my friend Chris; chronologically the youngest in our group of hooligans but who, being more interested in the world than anyone I know, taught us how to identify Bordeaux by the vineyard and classify fish by most appropriate accompaniments, while delivering a history lesson to people almost twice his age. The wine master – also called Chris, also with excellent hair – had trained at Plumpton after deciding to trade his career in hospitality for a less lucrative but more sociable one in the wine trade, and ultrarunning was simply an extension of improving his quality of life. After staying the night before in my sister-in-law’s Art Deco seafront apartment in Brighton, drinking in the sea breeze with my bottle of locally brewed porter, I got the impression that people in Sussex know how to live a good life. It’s the sort of life I could get used to.

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Chris and I had been running at a comfortable pace that would have got us in around the ten hour mark and were hoping to sustain it until at least thirty miles in before stopping for a proper rest. A great plan, which got less great as the sun burned brighter, my water bottles got drier and my feet heavier. Eventually I had to slow down and let him go, knowing that trying to hurry to the next station was counter-productive; I might save a few minutes but kill myself in the effort. Get-there-itis had fucked me over enough times before, and if I was going to learn any lessons from past experience it had to be not to panic. Nevertheless, by the time I reached the halfway checkpoint at Housedean the heat was really taking its toll, and not just on me. Despite advice to the contrary I took a seat in the cool darkness of the barn and watched as runner after runner came in but very few left. Dehydration had knocked me sideways and I didn’t want to leave until it was under control.

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OK, systems check. Muscles, fine actually. No pain, no soreness (thank you Altras), no blisters, not really tired even. I had the pre-sunburn feeling of warmth under my skin but otherwise no mechanical issues. Internally was a different story. Head, swimming. Stomach, not having any of it. Even the thought of food made me want to throw up and I still wasn’t ready to confront that possibility. Mouth, dry as an ashtray. Tailwind, gone. I took my time sipping a couple of cups of water before refilling both my bottles and nibbled pathetically on some fruit and a couple of cookies. When I set off on the road again the reusable cup in my mandatory kit turned out to be a bit of a lifesaver – my problem so far had mostly been to do with forgetting to drink when I needed it and holding an open cup in my hand was a good reminder to my gluey brain to keep sipping away. With that in one hand and some Marylands melting in the other I trudged away up the next climb.

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All day I had been looking forward to the Southease aid station at mile 33: partly because it was a pleasing number, partly because I had promised myself I could call Andy there, and partly because it was the point where I had met Cat during her run in 2015 and I fell in love with the spot immediately. At the crossroads between the South Downs Way and the Ouse Valley Way, the YHA at Southease offers an adorable tearoom nestled between rolling hills in one direction and winding river in the other, and it’s a real travellers’ treat. It was my reward for sticking out the tough part. The break I had taken at Housedean made all the difference to my hydration, the midday haze was burning away as we approached late afternoon and I even managed to pee (I know, the glamour of ultrarunning). Still though, I couldn’t quite improve on mousey nibbles of food that weren’t giving me any significant calorific value. A few miles on I felt the wall looming again; it took a lot of will to overcome my gag reflex and force down a gel. But it kept me going. Who knew.

Knowing that there was a tricky bit of navigation around the Alfriston and Jevington aid stations I devoted my energies to staying on track and tried to take my mind off my churning stomach. The navigation function on my Suunto was a great peace of mind when I had no familiarity with the area – not that you can get lost for lack of signs because they’re bloody everywhere, but because the panic that sets in when you haven’t seen one for a few minutes is more likely to make you doubt your course and make stupid decisions – so I concentrated on that little arrow and almost nothing else.

By the time I reached the church at Alfriston low blood sugar had scrambled my mind as well as my belly; I lurched towards the volunteers panicking about the cutoffs, refusing to refill my water bottle or eat until they reassured me I was well within it. Of course, I’d confused the 13 hour finishing time limit with my own 11 hour target and got myself in a tizz over nothing. It was a bit of a wake up call, and I took another systems check on myself. Not good. Whatever was in my body wanted to leave it, one way or the other – the next minutes minutes was spent either hugging the toilet or pushing pieces of crisps into my mouth even though I’d forgotten how to chew. But once again that twenty minutes in the cool shelter of the church was worth so much more than the time I’d have saved if I hadn’t stopped. I didn’t exactly leave good as new, but I recovered enough to alternate between jogging until my stomach complained and hiking until my watch did.

Eventually my watch complained too much and the battery gave out just as I reached the final station at Jevington. Running the navigation function all day drained it much faster than the standard settings, and the one section I really needed the navigation for was the final stretch where there were no longer any SDW waymarks. But, I reasoned, I knew that there was only around four and a half miles left which should take about an hour, and James’ team hadn’t exactly skimped on the signage – I couldn’t go far wrong as long as I paid attention. I grabbed a handful of jelly babies and trotted off. The end was so close now. Always forward.

The final stretch into Eastbourne town centre was, as you’d expect, a lot of painful hard ground after spending so much time on the relative comfort of of South Downs chalk. I just kept visualising the circuit of the running track that would make up the final 400 metres of the 50 mile race; just as I had so many times before, I imagined powering round it as if it was the 10,000m final of the Olympics. Before I knew it I was right there, running like I’d forgotten the distance that was behind me, lifting my chin and raising my knees, pushing forward on and on until I got to the final bend. And then, I fucking went for it.

Jumping over the line with a war-cry earned me some funny looks, a handshake from James Elson and a medal from Mimi Anderson, but my biggest reward was the confidence that I now knew how to beat the bonk. I had gone to a bad place and I had come back out of it with patience, determination and a good talking to. Not with kit choices, nor salt pills or magic bullets – just willpower. The decision to finish and finish strong was mine, just as the decision to quit had been too.

Less than five hours’ sleep before I left for work at 5:45 the following morning for an onsite rig day – it’s the part of my job that usually kills me but that day I had a spring in my step and some hilarious dodgy tan lines from running in one direction all day, and I almost couldn’t wait to get to work. That one race gave me belief, gave me back my control, gave me a huge chunk of my life back. And it would only be a month until the next one.

Can’t

Fucking

Wait.

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How to love running; or Brigitte’s Beautiful Black Dog

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Hi everyone. Remember me? I used to whinge a lot on the internet and now, now I just whinge a lot to myself instead.

I haven’t really got anything to whinge about. I finally own my own home, a lifelong dream to a working class kid from a nomadic family. Every day I get back from work and I stroke a bit of the pebbledashing, or run my toe along the moss in between the paving stones, to remind myself it’s mine (ours) (mostly Halifax’s).

I have an awesome job. I mean seriously, it’s the sort of job that if children knew it existed they’d probably say they wanted to be that instead of teacher or vet. The team I work with are truly brilliant; humble about both their achievements and my ineptitude, gracious in the face of my daily expletive filled temper tantrums. Most people in my position would not have passed probation; I get to see my name on the credits of cinema releases only a few lines under Sir Ian McKellen and Daniel Radcliffe. It is a bit baffling.

I have a gorgeous husband-to-be-to-be. He is gentle, calm, patient, funny, honest. When I first laid eyes on him I thought he looked just like Billy Corgan and my heart went pop. He’s got a much nicer voice, although he does also have an unexpected penchant for wrestling. He bought me tickets to Metallica for my birthday and made a Spotify playlist for the car even though I know he’s really only ever listened to Enter Sandman. He turns out to be pretty good at crewing too, even though he patently HATES it. We agree on almost all points except raisins. It’s as close as one gets to the definition of perfection.

But I’ve still been a total misery guts this last year. I mean, 2016 sucked, but I’m not Syrian or African American or a refugee – “economic” or otherwise – or living in poverty or living in danger for my political beliefs or living in a country where my gender makes me a second class citizen (mostly) or living in a state of uncertainty about my gender identity or my sexuality and I don’t really have anything in particular to complain about. I think if I did I’d probably be less of a misery guts; you know, I fucking love a fight. What I am living with however, is my beautiful black dog. Brigitte Aphrodite found the way to articulate it and Winston Churchill did too, so I’m stealing it.

Not being someone who functions on less than eight hours of sleep, four or five has become the norm, plagued by either insomnia or anxiety dreams. The dreams themselves are usually pretty banal. I wake up hideously late for work. It’s a week in the future and I haven’t prepared for the build I’m planning. Or something. It might not be a dream. I might just wake up at 5am, panting and sweating, and freaking out. I burst into uncontrollable tears. I haven’t done this thing. What happens if that thing. People will be angry. People will be upset. I’m going to have to tell someone they can’t have what they want. Why is this so frightening? I don’t care about making people happy. It’s just theatre. Worse things happen at sea, or in the White House. I do care about doing a good job though, and the only person that can let me down is me. So here we are.

Aware as I am that this anxiety is irrational, it doesn’t make it easier to confront. It’s not simply that I don’t want to get up in the morning; what I want is to freeze the world as it exists outside my house and keep it in stasis until I’m ready to face it again, without being certain if I ever will be. It’s as if the front door is the barrier on a level crossing and by opening it every day I willingly put myself in the path of high-speed trains, so logic tells me don’t open it, don’t cross the threshold. But I have to, and every day I dance with trains. I’ve even had nightmares about train tracks for fuck’s sake.

I realised, towards the end of 2016, that I was heading in a direction I’ve gone before. The end of that road was similarly miserable, and with size 4 jeans hanging off my bony hips. This time I knew that to take control I needed not to fixate on what I was doing, but what I was deciding. And luckily, I had a very recent memory of something that I decided to do once, that made me happy. For every day in 2015 I ran at least a mile a day. Sometimes in ridiculous circumstances, sometimes the very definition of “junk miles”, but I never suffered injury and recovery was a matter of hours not days. Keeping up my streak became more important than finishing a job, taking a lunch break, getting an extra half hour of sleep. And that time never ever felt wasted.

So, I’ve taken the decision to restart my streak. Andy, reasonably, doesn’t approve of my manias in any form, but I think he understands the implications of the alternative. As I write this I’m over four months in, and the effects are already visible. Physically, I’m more toned and stronger (although still around a half stone overweight). Mentally I am coping better with tiny things, and that’s a small win. I already find that a single mile around the block is enough to shake out tension and anxiety, and make me a more bearable person to live with if not entirely a better one. The routine is teaching me to rediscover the connection between physical and mental health. I do not say “I hate” as much as I used to.

Quite besides the anxiety, for a good year I have been plagued with chronic pain. If I had to point out which part of my body hurt I’m not sure I could. Everything just hurt. Muscles, bones, breathing, thinking. The daily mile is just enough to loosen things up and for the pain to fade. The absence of it tortured me. If I’m describing an addiction, then frankly I’m OK with this kind of addiction. It’s better than codeine or crack or Candy Crush Saga.

What my running addiction has forced me to do is reassess my priorities again. I’m ashamed to say that with or without the daily mile finding time to spend at home remained a low priority; there’s always a reason to stay late at work to finish that one thing and the decision to spend my holiday days doing freelance work is only my own, but 2016 forced me to acknowledge that my runs weren’t pushing Andy down the pecking order, I was. Quitting my daily run streak did not create more time for me to spend at home, it simply removed a reason for me to catch the last direct train home. On top of which, I was grumpy and twitchy for not having had any proper exercise and Andy probably didn’t want me at home in that state anyway.

 

So, he knows that unless I can get it done in my lunch break (still not fucking likely) he’s going to lose me for ten minutes a day. He can spend that ten minutes playing Mass Effect and barely notice I’m gone. I’ll come back refreshed and in less pain, ergo less whingy, ergo less disruptive to his game of Mass Effect. Win win. My wonderful boss is similarly supportive of this new prioritisation strategy – in fact, she has an alarm on her desk that goes off at six to make sure we all go home on time now. She is, I think, also a little sick of grumpy Jaz. By reviewing my priorities, I realised how much the good people around me suffer the effects of my ill temper without losing faith in me, and I owe it to them to show an improvement.

The unexpected side effect is that I’m not just loving that I’m running again, I’m loving running again. I don’t see upholding the streak as a chore at all; I see it as investment in a better me. Like putting a couple of quid in a bank account every day, and getting interest on every deposit. Somehow, twenty miles a week spread over three days seemed not to be giving any returns; spread over seven days it seems to have twice the value. My training pattern has become an important allegory for my ultramarathon strategy, where learning that you can recover from a bonk and resisting the temptation to quit is the single most important bit of training you can do. Even at half eleven at night, when I started work at half six in the morning, spent all day on my feet and feel nauseous from eating only Doritos, I can find the strength to take one step, and if I can take that step I can take another and another and basically that’s all there is to it.

In my mind, to love running you need to love learning, and still have something to learn. It’s got less to do with measurable factors like speed and distance as goals in and of themselves and more with what you need to do to reach them, what you learn about yourself along the way. These are lessons that can be taken into all the areas of your life, wherever you find them. Much like an apprenticeship, you can do the reading part but it still takes a certain amount of real life practice to really learn those lessons and find how to apply them. My apprenticeship has given me the courage to set goals again, something I became afraid to do for fear of failing to reach them. Goal number one is to say “I” and “me” less – yeah, not a great start this – goal number two is to readjust my expectations; goal number three is to complete the Centurion 50 mile Grand Slam. If I can normalise 50 mile trail races I can normalise going over a level crossing every morning. If I can dance with the trains I can do anything.

I can and I will.

 

Featured image credit: https://visitmerksay.wordpress.com/tag/black-dog/ 
Inspiration: Brigitte Aphrodite. Look her up, she’s proper awesome.

Moonlight Challenge – fourth time’s the charm

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You can look at endurance sports in one of two ways:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”

“The definition of insanity is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome.”

I mean, I’ve had a QPR season ticket for the last 8 years, so perhaps a bent for hopeless endurance sports was inevitable.

Here I am then on my fourth outing at the Moonlight Challenge aiming for the elusive fifth lap. Regular readers will remember attempt number one, where I foolishly aimed to nab my first ultra marathon finish on only my second ever long distance race and ended up humbled by the mud; attempt two where I basically chickened out; when number three was stymied by a knee injury I knew I would be back again this year.

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I would be, but two very important people would not. Wendimum, who had been such a regular supporter at Challenge Hub races that she probably qualified for a green number, had moved to The North where the weather comes from; and Mike Inkster, godfather of daft races, had finally handed the Challenge Hub reins over to Traviss and Rachel of Saxons Vikings Normans. The three challenges would now form part of their incredibly prolific portfolio of races, and all I’d heard about SVN was glowing reports. I mean, seriously-are-they-bribing-you glowing reports. Generous goody bags, medals so big and ornate you could pave a driveway with them, cake and beer a staple of every race. I was curious to see if they would do this historic event justice or if the spirit of the Challenge Hub races would simply be lost for ever.

Being Kent-based, the regular faces at SVN were many of the same ones that I knew from Challenge Hub and So Let’s Go Running, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar ground. What became very clear very quickly was that although I was one of a handful of regulars the new RDs would bring a huge field to this relatively tiny race, with many 100 Marathon Club members and wannabes keen to try a rare “new” course. What was also clear is that nobody ever does just one SVN race. This is a community built around the idea that a) literally anyone can finish a marathon – which is true – and b) one marathon is never enough, and nor is a hundred. It’s like the Challenge Hub ethos on acid.

There were a few tweaks to the race, which loyalty insisted I should HATE but practicality forced me to appreciate. Change number one was that the race would start at 4pm, not 6pm, and more importantly that it would be moved forward by 4 weeks so that it fell on the somewhat milder March full moon night, not a bitterly cold and foggy February one. Change number two was the format; instead of a multi-lap race with a limit of five, it would now be an eight-hour race with complete laps counted towards the total, as many as you could finish so long as the final one started before 10:30pm. I hadn’t any other reason to be optimistic about the race given my appalling preparation and my extra stone in weight, but I did cling to the little luxuries these changes afforded.

The biggest luxury, especially given that Wendimum wouldn’t be there, was to have Andy crewing for me. Let’s be clear; Andy is not a runner. He does not find running as exciting as I do. He certainly does not consider the idea of sitting in a barn on a cold Saturday night, with no wi-fi or electricity, for eight full hours sandwiched by a two hour drive there and back, fun. I had to put on my most pathetic face to persuade him to do it. If I was to have any chance of nabbing the fifth lap I would need not to be worrying about driving home on tired legs or finding my food and drinks at each pitstop. At least we found a huge John Deere tractor to use as a base, and Andy got his fill of machinery porn for the day as we set up our camping chairs in front of it.

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Mooching about the start and half-heartedly stretching, I caught snippets of overheard conversations. The usual run-geekery and gossip, then I heard the word “elevation”. Three very serious looking chaps were discussing whether it counted as basically flat or the fact that the bridge over the motorway, which you cross twice per lap, cumulatively contributed to a lot of climbing. I held my tongue, but it was tough. I wanted desperately to jump in and tell them, elevation is not the challenge on this race. There are humps, but if you look back at your Strava when you finish the profile will look flat as a pancake. There’s a bit of mud, but any relatively experienced runner will be well prepared for that – and anyway, everyone here seemed to be wearing Hoka Stinsons and you can’t really be sure where the foot begins and the lugs end with those things. The repetitive nature of the laps aren’t anywhere near as bad a you’d think either; actually I’ve grown to love the rhythmic nature and comforting familiarity of lap format races. No, the challenge is far more insidious than that.

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Judging the flatness of this race is like measuring fractals. Is that flat ground? Sure. No, wait, look closer. Is that a rut? Try again. A rut IN a rut? Getting warmer. This is a farm on the coast, my friend. That’s right – the ground for at least half of each lap has been rained on, churned, dried out, flooded, churned again, dried again, over and over until there isn’t a square foot that isn’t made up of peaks and troughs which are in turn made up of smaller peaks and troughs that redefine infinity. Good luck finding somewhere to land your feet. I’m guessing this is why the race always used to be run in the rainy season.

No time to worry about it now though. Part of my tactics for persuading Andy to come with me was to promise that we could listen to the QPR game on the radio – that turned out to be an optimistic gamble as pointless run-up coverage of the pointless Six F**king Nations filled the airwaves so I left him to grind his teeth in peace while I checked the first section of terrain. I was wearing my comfy zero-drop Altras in the car intending to change into my Salomon Fellraisers for the race itself, but the ground was much harder tham normal and the Fellraisers’ lugs would have shredded my feet looking for mud to bite into. Not having trained much in the zero-drop shoes was presumably an Achilles disaster waiting to happen, but I didn’t have much choice.

On the plus side, Mike made an appearance after all – dressed for once in smart clothes and boots instead of running shoes and jungle shorts, he had a cameo appearance as the race starter. I was so pleased to see him I nearly knocked him over with my hug. An auspicious start, but unless you’ve run a cumulative 200 miles (or more) around one of his fiendishly difficult courses you can’t appreciate the love I have for Mike, who has become the godfather of ultrarunning to me. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, isn’t it? Either way, another good omen for the race ahead.

There wasn’t the usual rocket going off for the start (“the man who was meant to bring it forgot”) but there we were, pretty much bang on 4pm, set loose on the trails of two of Kent’s muddiest coastal farms. The loop is made of (as Traviss perfectly described it) a dumbbell, where one loop is on Brook Farm, the furthest point of which is also the start/finish, the other is Bell Isle Farm, and the crossover is the bridge over the A299. Brook Farm is definitely the marshier of the two and includes the tricky little ridge of holy-crap-what-IS-that-we’re-running-on, which I am informed is only 400 metres long but can assure you is closer to about twenty miles. It’s ankle-turning central round there, and there are no prizes for finishing it first. So, although I held off walking until the fourth lap, I did take that section at a trot rather than a canter.

MC2017 route

The first lap went smoothly, a good opportunity for regulars to reacquaint themselves with the route in the light and for newbies to learn it, for although it’s signposted Brook Farm in particular has a fair few turns that are easy to get wrong. By the second I was a little bored of being a Focused Runner, and tried to chat to a couple of people, and by a happy coincidence bumped into Jimi Hendricks (real name) from the Rebel Runners. I had run this same race with Jimi and Paula for a fair chunk last year, when both were on their third or fourth ever marathon. In the intervening year Jimi, with the help of SVN, had become a marathon running machine and had completed something like 70 more, well on his way to the 100. These are people who absolutely share my ethos for running, and the more I spoke to Jimi the more I learned about the work that SVN do effectively operating their running community as a feeder system for the 100 Marathon Club.

The belief that anyone can finish a marathon or ultra and in fact all those people can easily go on to finish a thousand more if they want to is underpinned by the practice of stripping back the things in races you probably don’t need (chip timing, baggage pens, disco music and coordinated warmups) and focusing instead on the things you do need (logistical support, sense of humour, a fuck ton of food and a pint of beer at the end). By running many of their races as timed events rather than distance ones, the stress of hitting cutoffs or getting drop bags to the right place is eliminated immediately. Of 91 finishers, 22 completed 5 or more laps in the allotted time to bag themselves an ultra (including one man, Alix Ramsier, who made it to 52.8 miles to take the longest distance by a full 2 laps); a further 49 completed a marathon. And the other 20? They all got their finishing time, their medal and their goody bag too. No DNFs, no timeouts. I’ve been listening to the Ultra Runner Podcast obsessively and host Eric Schranz raised this point just recently – if you’re running your first ultra, a fixed time event as opposed to a fixed distance one is definitely the way to go. I’ve got to hand it to SVN, they’ve got this COVERED.

Back to the race. Among the marathon finishers are two people without whom I’m not sure I’d have finished, certainly not with a smile on my face anyway. Simon Lewis and I did a little dance of face-in-a-strange-place “Do I know you?” until we worked out that no, we had not met at previous Challenge Hub Races, no, there was no Kent connection; Simon is in fact another Clapham Chaser and co-Event Director of Tooting Common parkrun. How we found each other all the way out here…  I knew Simon’s face and I knew his name from the weekly club results roundup, but I’d never put the two together before. I’d also never realised there was another Chaser who subscribed to the more is more ethos for race finishes, and who was also well on the way to the 100 Club shirt. We ran half of the second lap together, just as the sun packed itself off to bed, playing chicken with our headtorches. Simon’s finish got him to marathon number 72 and his goal – which I have no doubt he will smash – is to hit the hundred before the end of December. I felt like I was in good company.

About halfway through the third lap, after I’d steamed ahead of Simon with a rare and foolhardy burst of energy, I realised I was back to running a boring loop on my own again and there weren’t even any views to enjoy. Well, there’s the sodium glare of the A299, but it’s hardly anything to write home about. And just as I started grumbling away to myself I came across another lone runner similarly wondering why the hell we were staring at a main road. Claire turned out to be more excellent company for what was becoming the slog part of the race. A lifelong film buff, she remains the first person I’ve ever met who does now for a living what she wanted to do when she was a little girl: a graphic designer that makes film posters. We chatted easily for a lap and a half, a good eleven miles that I barely noticed passing.  In that irreverent way that you do when you meet someone you click with, we discussed GI issues on the run, favourite ways to fuel (both having recently dicovered Tailwind), why do romcom posters always have black and red Arial font on a white background, and Kiera Knightley. It turned out that she’d read my blog before (poor woman) and we shared URLs before we parted at the end of lap four.

I was genuinely gutted to lose Claire for the final lap but she had already pretty much made my race. She forced me to slow a little and walk the occasional inclines, which I’m usually loathe to do but always always regret later on, and I’m positive that that gave me the energy to make it through the final lap. Before I started Andy and I did a little mental calculation and worked out that by giving it a bit of welly I could actually be done with this lap in about hour and a quarter and make the six and a half hour watershed for starting the last one, but it would be a bit stupid to rush and risk injury. Plus, Andy really did not want to be there for another hour and a half. No, I would learn the lessons that Claire had taught me and take it easy for this lap. And since I’d be on my own I put my headphones in for the first time to listen to an interview with my hard-work hero, Jamie Mackie, on the QPR podcast. And off I went.

The zero-drop shoes were, surprisingly, a dream. Given the hardness of the ground and the lack 0f practice running in them I really expected to crash out with an Achilles nightmare (2016 had been that sort of year) but my calves, knees and feet were absolutely fine. I mean, slightly sore in the way that legs that have run a marathon tend to be, but not the sort of sore that actually stops you; in fact I felt as strong as I had in the second lap. Perhaps Altra are onto something here – why the hell are they so hard to find in the UK? I did a bit of shoegazing and saw a ton of Hokas, some Salomons, the occasional Inov-8 (I tried some of those again last week and they’re definitely dolls’ shoes, not made for duck feet like mine) but definitely no other Altras.

The Focused Runner approach actually seemed to be working for me and I kept a steady and not disrespectable pace up for three quarters of the lap before I became conscious of myself ramping up. Then I came across the windmill which marks the final straight, about half a mile of road which goes a bit up and then lots down, and I bloody went for it. The balls of my feet burned, my glutes started firing, my arms pumping as if I was on the Mall at the end of the London Marathon. It hurt, but it hurt good. A hop and a skip through the open barn door and I rang the bell to say I was done – 9 seconds after the final lap cutoff. Worth it. And the goody bag was, true to form, unspeakably good…

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Andy had to concede it wasn’t the worst time he’d ever had, and I think he finally understood what I see in this daft sport when he met the other characters that make it what it is. For my part I don’t think I’ve ever finished a race that strongly, and it gave me a huge boost for the Centurion 50 Mile Grand Slam – something which, with the first race only four weeks away, I was terrified about. After a dismal year of injury upon exhaustion on top of weight gain added to laziness this race really hit my reset buttons  – and obviously the first thing I did when I got home was sign up for the first random SVN race that wasn’t aleady sold out (August). Traviss and Rachel have done a fantastic job of keeping the Challenge Hub spirit alive and I’m sure Mike is relieved to know his races are in good hands. Me, I’m just glad to have my mojo back. God I’ve missed this.

Ask me again in four weeks.

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